Vocal sampling. The act of cutting a human voice from source audio and repurposing it in a new piece of music. It’s become fairly normal to hear a vocal sample adding an edge of humanity to a dance or electronic track at the moment, but how did vocal sampling become what it is today? And what exactly is it today? In this feature I want to examine what different producers are doing with vocals at the moment and why, but in order to do that we need to start at the beginning.
I’m not going to get into discussing breakbeats or sampling itself, because there has already been plenty of interesting discourse on the subject. The first examples of vocal sampling in dance music seem to be in the Acid and Chicago House tracks of the late 80s. Once hardware had become complex enough to sample voices, songs started to emerge where vocals were sampled and manipulated rather than a vocalist having to physically record their voice for each track. These tended to be in the stuttered, repetitive vocal phrases that populated the genre, look at any of Todd Terry’s classic productions for reference points.
This technique was taken further in the East-coast sound of the early 90s, with the emergence of what we now know as Garage. By this point the actual words sampled tended to be an exciting or catchy line that would ramp up anticipation and enjoyment on the dancefloor, but at the same time the samples started to become used more and more as hooks and percussive elements as we recognise them today, removed from their original context and meaning. On Nightcrawlers’ Push The Feeling On (The Dub Of Doom) we can hear and early example of a vocal that has lost all meaning, used purely as a catchy melodic element. Although this sounds fairly average by today’s standards, one can imagine how it might be strange to have a human voice there that was manipulated into a form where it is impossible to discern the words, in what can essentially be seen as a levelling of the human voice into a base musical element. Of course this was nothing new considering the amount of wordless song that have existed throughout the ages, from pagan chants to choirs, but it was the first time that a vocal that once had meaning was deliberately manipulated through electronics to lose that meaning, and then repurposed as just another instrument.
Nightcrawlers – Push The Feeling On (The Dub of Doom) (1992)
From the beginning of sampling in the US, I now want to move on and focus this feature on the UK dance scene. The root of vocal sampling as we now know it in the Bass music scene is most clearly grounded in UK Garage, which took the aforementioned sounds of Todd Terry and co and gave them a hard UK edge, as well as pushing vocal manipulation a lot further than it had ever gone before. Artists like Todd Edwards and Tuff Jam cut up multiple vocal samples and laced them together to form the melodic core of their tracks, retaining the warmth of the human voice (especially important in their dark Garage soundscapes) while stripping away any meaning whatsoever, and letting the sample work just as another element in the sound.
As UK Garage charted a slow shift towards Dubstep in the British underground, use of vocals diminished. Excepting occasional use of brooding voices, early Dubstep was characterised by the space and darkness of its sound, and although UK Garage-style sampling continued in some respects, the technique was not furthered in a major way for several years.
The next producer to really hit the Electronic mainstream with innovative sampling was Burial, a producer I’m sure you all know well. Although his sources were nothing new, he used his samples to evoke a melancholy and darkness rather than a catchy hook, which was unusual at the time. Added to this, he expressed a fondness for pitching male voices up and female voices down to create “sexy vibe” and an ambiguity of gender, another technique that is fairly commonplace by now. Burial stated while discussing the early UK Garage scene in a 2007 interview with The Wire, “I’d love these vocals that would come in, not proper singing but cut-up and repeating, and executed coldly. It was like a forbidden siren.” It’s a simple description for a musical technique that has accelerated Burial to Electronic stardom, where he introduced samples just as much to highlight absence as their presence, as can be seen in a 2009 interview with Fact; “That’s the sound I love…like embers in the tune…little glowing bits of vocals…they appear for a second, then fade away and you’re left with an empty, sort of air-duct sound…something that’s eerie and empty.”
XI – Squeeze (2012)
Fast forward to the last few years, and vocal sampling is everywhere. There are more producers than you can count who wield their samples to achieve the same effect as Burial, as well as a few others who have taken his style even further into the dark. See for example XI’s recent single Squeeze, in which a super-clipped vocal sample is treated and “de-oxygenated” (as RA described it) in a fashion that highlights a humanity and warmth that has been stripped away, strengthening the menacing, inhuman feel to its tough percussive workout. XI further dehumanizes the voice by pitching it up and down to form a skipping melodic variation, proving how far a voice can be taken from its original meaning and humanity. It is curious to imagine that a producer would choose to add a person’s voice which makes a song feel less human, but it is a potent tool which adds to the paranoid power of the track.
Brenmar – Temperature Rising (2011)
Producers are now using cut-up vocals not just to express a human touch to contrast a moody soundfield, as Burial did, but to other purposes. In Temperature Rising Brenmar was just one of many producers who twinned choppy RnB vocals with fast-tempo Bass production to demonstrate a silky, overt sex appeal, while in the second You on Gold Panda’s Lucky Shiner album, a single-word vocal sample repeats to a powerfully mournful effect. It’s clear this particular style of vocal sampling can be manipulated to evoke almost any emotion the producer wants.
Gold Panda – You (2010)
Nowadays the current Bass scene is saturated with artists cutting up RnB and Funk vocals to varying degrees of success, but it begs the question of why an artist would prefer to chop up their vocals than leave them as whole phrases. Two plausible answers occur to me, the first musical and the second more based in meaning. Some producers use cut up vocals almost as a human alternative to a synth, as merely another musical tool to be manipulated and sequenced into the melody of a track. In a song like Disclosure’s i love…that you know or Joy Orbison’s classic Hyph Mngo, a heavily treated vocal line, with the actual words often (or completelyindiscernible, forms the central hook of the track. It’s an interesting idea to remove meaning from words to just hear the melody of language, and a producer’s willingness to just let a manipulated vocal line be the core of a track is intriguing, trading the meaning of words for their musicality.
Joy Orbison – Hyph Mngo (2009)
The second reason I can think of to chop vocals in this way is to do with the meaning and emotion evoked by the words in the listener. Simply put, if a vocal is treated so the words are difficult to make out, then it’s likely that the listener will attribute their own language and meaning to the song. The result of this is that the song forces no specific emotion on the listener, more a general mood, to which the listener can attribute the words and sentiment that personally suit them at the time. It is irrelevant to consider whether this is a case of the listener subconsciously ‘hearing what they’re feeling’ in terms of language or if it’s a more conscious process of application, because either way by becoming linguistically ambiguous, a song actually increases its emotive scope. Benjamin Damage and Doc Daneeka’s Halo is a perfect example of this, with Abigail Wyles’ muffled vocals freely interpretable by the listener as long as their chosen meaning suits the subdued vibes of the song. It seems almost paradoxical that by making a voice less recognisably human you can actually increase its emotional appeal, but this is the intriguing effect of a lot of contemporary electronic music.
Wolfgang Voigt – Kafkatrax 2.1 (2011)
With the rapid development of audio manipulation tools, the use of vocal samples is now only really limited by the producer’s imagination. There are only two ways to push the use of these samples; forward and backward, and there are great contemporary producers pursuing the path in both directions. For an example of someone pushing use of vocals forward into more extreme territory, one need look no further than legendary German producer Wolfgang Voigt, who many of you will know as Ambient Techno producer Gas and the head of Cologne-based label Kompakt. In his recent Kafkatrax series, Voigt producer a series of tracks comprised solely of vocals cut and treated from a Kafka audiobook excepting the inclusion of a single kick drum. The result is as cerebral and successful as any of Voigt’s work, the vocals assembled into deep, hypnotic Techno with some sounds still recognisable as human voice and others so far removed as to sound like they were recorded entirely from a synthesiser. This is, in some ways, the upper limit of that trade-off between musicality and meaning, the press release states that the use of Kafka, “is entirely meaningless to the final musical product – Voigt is only interested in the sound of recited vocal text.”
Doc Daneeka & Abigail Wyles – Tobyjug (2012)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are producers who traditionally used samples that are now drafting in vocalists to sing original vocal tracks for their Electronic productions. Doc Daneeka, who built his reputation on hard-bodied UK Funky and Bass music, reigned in the force of his productions and once more collaborated with vocalist Abigail Wyles to produce the Electronic soul ballad Tobyjug, in which he allows her voice to take centre-stage, lyrics and all. There is certainly a trend emerging of vocalists being called in for Dance and Electronic productions, from the poppier end of the spectrum with Jessie Ware (recently produced for by Julio Bashmore), to Funky muse Fatima, to SBTRKT favourite Sampha.
SBTRKT – Hold On (feat. Sampha) (2011)
So on one side we now have experimental tracks entirely made of vocals, and on the other producers are returning to the historic technique of inviting original vocalists to feature in tracks, not to mention the thousands of producers working and sampling somewhere between the two extremes. It’s important to realise that those that feature vocalists shouldn’t be seen as regressive in any way, Dance music has always run in cycles with techniques going in and out of fashion, and furthermore the application of new styles of Electronic production mean the results sound nothing like the 20-year old songs that used live vocals in a similar fashion. It’s impossible to predict where vocal sampling can go from here, but considering the resourcefulness of producers in using the human voice as a tool so far in Electronic music, it’s probably best to not have any specific expectations. The world of Electronic music moves so fast and offers so many surprises that you probably won’t have to wait too long to find out anyway.
First Choice – Let No Man Put Asunder (1977)
Before the playlist, I’ll leave you with this First Choice classic, almost every single line of which has been sampled in one dance track or another. See how many you can recognise. Also, listen out for a very early example of vocal manipulation at the end of the track.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the discussion on vocal sampling, included below is a selection of a few tracks from the last few months that have used vocals in particularly interesting or gratifying ways. Enjoy!
Bondax – All Inside
Arthur Beatrice – Midland (Bwana Remix)
Shlohmo – Wen Uuu
Airhead – Wait
Lianne La Havas – Forget (Shlohmo Remix)
Above & Beyond – Love Is Not Enough (Synkro Remix)
Burial – Ashtray Wasp